Here’s a quick summary of and conclusion to my talk on particularism at the Garage Blackboard lectures.
So what are we left with? Particularism is a view of ethics that eschews abstract answers in favour of getting to grips with the complex nature of each situation. We can’t figure out ‘ethics’ in advance: we’ve got to do it with each ethical decision. And ‘ethics’ isn’t a set of scientific laws, waiting to be discovered. It’s the weird, organic interactions between a myriad of factors that change moment to moment. A bit more like biology than physics! Particularism is more demanding – it stops us from leaning on theory, for instance – but it’s also more modest. It lets us withhold judgement all over the place and doesn’t ambitiously try to answer the really general ethical questions. These all seem like good characteristics of an ethics, at least to me. I hope they do to you as well.
In the final section of my talk on particularism I deal with a second objection: that particularism leaves us no room for philosophy as such.
Finally, let’s look at another objection to particularism. So far in this talk I’ve presented particularism as a kind of negative position: arguing that we can’t have ethical principles, but not really presenting what we should have instead (outside of a careful attention to the facts). Opponents of particularism generally say here that particularism offers no actual way of talking about ethics. They argue that there’s no room for ethical philosophy as such in a particularist view. That’s not quite as serious as a claim that particularism is false, but it’s an objection that particularists have been quite concerned with – as they should be. Ethical philosophers don’t want to philosophize themselves out of a job.
The particularist’s aim here is to avoid total reliance on a kind of Aristotelian ‘practical wisdom’, which is a “just practice and develop your ethical awareness” approach. I want to say there’s at least two ways the particularist can do this, and probably many more. Let’s start with the first, which I find the most convincing. Margaret Little and Mark Lance – both ethical particularists – have argued that particularists should be able to use something very like ethical principles. Take the principle “murder is wrong” or “do not murder” – of course, the particularists say, this gets us nowhere if we see it as a grand truth about what is right. But what if, as Little and Lance suggest, we see it as something like a musical theme? “Murder is wrong” becomes then a kind of motif for ethics: it’s not present everywhere, just as a musical theme isn’t constantly repeated in a symphony. But we can see echoes of it all over the place. Cases where murder is right, Little says, are going to be weird cases. That doesn’t have to mean uncommon cases, but it does mean a case where something has gone wrong – i.e the dog-eat-dog world of Mad Max or an instance of violent self-defense. Particularists can theorize about ethics like people theorize about music: picking out the themes, noting the variations and so on. Anyway. I don’t want to belabour this point; I’m just suggesting a way particularists can use theory.
A second way has been outlined by Gerald Dworkin, who suggests we engage in something like common-law legal reasoning when we do ethics. Instead of dealing with principles at all, we talk exclusively about cases and precedent: picking out past or hypothetical instances where certain judgements seem clear, and trying to see the relevant similarities and differences between those instances that might motivate new judgements. This is a way more modest approach than Little’s: Dworkin isn’t saying that we can isolate relevant moral considerations this way: a relevant factor in one case might be irrelevant in another. He’s saying we can make particular decisions on a case-by-case basis. That’s it.
I haven’t really argued for either Little’s view or Dworkin’s view – that’s outside the scope of this talk. All I want to demonstrate is that particularism has a few options for doing ethical philosophy. If you’ve got no interest in philosophy and just want to make good ethical decisions, you can forget this part of the talk right away.
Here’s the second-last section of my Garage Blackboard Lectures talk on particularism. I deal with one common objection to the theory.
Let’s take a quick look at one common objection to particularism. People who aren’t particularists – generalists – generally say at this point that particularists are just looking at the wrong principles. Generalists think there are actually some moral reasons that don’t change in an organic whole: that, if they count for an action, will count for it no matter the context. Here’s an example: “the fact that you’ve made a promise is always a moral reason to keep it”. That’s a little more sophisticated than “keep your promises!” Let’s say that you borrow a book, and then find that you could destroy the book to save a life. The principle “keep your promises!” seems to be just defeated by the context. But it might still be true that you have a moral reason to give the book back – it’s just that such a reason is outweighed.
However. What if you find out the book is stolen, and the person who it was stolen from desperately wants it back? It looks like in that situation you have no reason at all to return the book to the thief – your promise is quite literally voided by the context. Take another example of an unchanging principle: “the fact that an action would increase happiness is always a moral reason to do it”. Well, what about the pleasure of a sadist? The sadist’s pleasure is not the “moral silver lining” of the situation. It’s part of what makes the sadist so morally repulsive. It changes the moral character of the sadist’s actions for the worse. I think these examples show us how hard it is to find a moral principle that doesn’t change itself in different contexts.
Here’s the fourth section of my Garage Blackboard Lectures talk on particularism. I’m finally getting into an actual explanation of what particularists believe:
Now the particularist doesn’t like the science-like approach to ethics at all. And that’s because the particularist has a view about reasons that’s very interesting. Jonathan Dancy, perhaps the best-known particularist currently writing, begins one of his books by comparing reasons to rats. If you put two or more rats together, it’s very hard to predict what they’ll do. They might fight, they might ignore each other, they might have any kind of relationship. And the particularist thinks it’s the same with moral reasons. The landscape of moral reasons is horrendously complicated – certainly too complicated for general principles.
Here’s an example from Dancy. Say you’re visiting a friend in LA, and she asks if there’s any dietary restrictions you have. You tell her that you don’t eat veal, because you think it’s unethical. She replies: “yes, the conditions in which they keep those calves are terrible – and besides, it’s impossible to get good veal in Los Angeles anyway!” Now those two reasons are both reasons not to eat veal. But there’s a kind of inconsistency in putting them together that makes them weaker than either reason would be by itself.
In technical terms, moral reasons form organic unities. The concept of an organic unity was popularized in 1903 by G.E. Moore (who obliquely attributed the idea to Hegel). Moore’s idea – which particularists more or less agree with – was that in any given case, the set of relevant moral considerations combines in weird ways to form one general consideration. You can’t figure out your moral obligation by just listing the various considerations for or against – you have to take a good, holistic look at how these considerations combine to form a whole.
So. Particularists think that our moral reasons tend to combine in complicated, unpredictable ways. We think that any principle like “murder is wrong” or “we should create happiness” is going to be unhelpful: not only are there going to be a ton of exceptions, but there’s no way to predict in advance how all our principles are going to interact in cases of conflict. Hardcore particularists conclude that there just don’t exist any good moral principles. More modest particularists think that good moral principles might exist, but we don’t need them. The real task of ethics is not going to be figuring out or applying principles, but getting a good look at what exactly is going on in any particular case.
Here’s the third section of my Garage Blackboard Lectures talk about particularism. In it I outline what I take to be the mainstream philosophical method of ethics, which particularism vehemently disagrees with:
So what’s the problem with ethics? I think it’s a tendency – maybe a post-Enlightenment thing – to try and treat ethics like a science. Certainly in deontological and utilitarian approaches you can see the standard scientific approach play out: break everything down into atomic units, then find the laws governing how those units relate to each other. Just as physicists try and figure out the ‘most basic’ particles and how they work together – or astronomers calculate the interactions between bodies of mass – moral philosophers have tried to find the most basic moral reasons and how those reasons interact.
Utiltiarians think the most basic moral reason – the only one, in fact – is happiness. That an act would increase happiness is a moral reason to do that act. Deontologists think there are a few basic moral reasons – to avoid killing, to respect others, and so on. Nearly everyone agrees that if we can find more fundamental reasons that would encompass our existing ones, then we should take those as ‘better’ moral principles. The basic assumption is that the moral landscape is governed by general rules. The ultimate goal, presumably, is a set of rules – a theory – such that we could plug in every difficult moral decision and get the right thing to do.
I want to note here that this philosophical approach to ethics is painfully at odds with how we actually engage in ethics daily. We don’t reach for theories when making decisions. If we’re asked to explain why we’ve acted in a certain way, I think our general impulse is not to go more abstract (I bought Tim a coffee because it is always right to do X in situation Y) but to focus on the particular details (I bought Tim a coffee because he had a bad day, because he looked worn-down, etc etc etc).
Here’s the next section of my talk at the Garage Blackboard Lectures:
In 1912, H.A. Prichard wrote a hugely influential paper called “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake” – a provocative title – where he expressed a dissatisfaction with ethical philosophy. The emphasis on arguments and abstraction left him pretty cold. If we wanted to be convinced about our moral obligation to not steal or kill, he wrote, we just have to get face to face with a particular instance of, say, murder or theft. All this general argument stuff just won’t do it.
In 1976, half a century later, Michael Stocker wrote another influential and provocative paper called “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories”. He pointed out the way popular ethical theories like our Big Three fail to take account of motive. If you’re a utilitarian, say, you’ll act to produce the most happiness in the greatest number. But if you’re visiting your sick friend in the hospital, and he thanks you for coming, and you say “well, I didn’t come because of my friendship with you, but because I judged it was the act that would produce the most happiness in the greatest number…” Well, your friend would probably not be impressed with how saintly you are.
In 1985, Annette Baier wrote a great paper arguing that the way the Big Three are taught tends to produce not more ethical students, but totally amoral students. When you’re taught three (or thirty, since the Big Three have a ton of variants) different abstract frameworks for ethics, that in some places are similar and in some places are different, that seem to have exactly the same weight of evidence behind them, Baier thinks it’s tempting to just reject ethics altogether and opt for a more univocal motivation: like self-interest.
There’s some reason to think Baier’s right! In 2009, the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel published a somewhat tongue-in-cheek study that showed this: relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books, and that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were about twice as likely to be missing. So! I hope all that has given you reason to believe that there’s something wrong in ethical philosophy – and I should note that this is all analytic ethical philosophy; these criticisms don’t necessarily extend to continental or Asian ethical philosophy.
After a long hiatus, I’m back for a bit. Over the next week or two I’m going to post sections of a talk I gave the other day at the Garage Blackboard Lectures on ethical particularism. Here’s the introductory bit:
Hi everyone! In this talk I’ll try to convince you that you ought to be an ethical particularist – or, failing that, I’ll at least try to explain what ethical particularism is and why it’s interesting. Ethical particularism is the view that says there are no ethical principles, and we shouldn’t rely on ethical principles when we make decisions. Of course that’s a controversial view, and the first part of my talk will attempt to show why such a radical approach is warranted. I’ll be arguing that there’s something fundamentally weird about large parts of ethical philosophy. Then I’ll talk about reasons – in particular, moral reasons – and what the particularist thinks about the way moral reasons combine. Finally I’ll try address the common objection that without general principles we can’t do ethical philosophy or communication. Two notes: I’ll be talking in the context of analytic philosophy, and I’ll be using “moral” and “ethical” interchangeably.
I don’t know how many of you have taken undergrad courses in ethical philosophy, but if you have you’ll know the Big Three theories in ethics: utilitarianism, virtue ethics and deontology. These are the three main things you get taught, and different theories are usually situated in relation to these big ones. Utilitarianism is the theory that we ought to do what would promote the most happiness. Virtue ethics is the theory that we ought to do what the just, courageous, etc person would. Deontology is the theory that we ought to abide by the Moral Law – and usually deontologists have a pretty clear idea of what that law is. Now this is a pretty rough statement of these three theories, but I think it’s pretty clear that they occupy a certain level of abstraction. That is, they’re theories about what we should do in general. General principles, in other words. They all take for granted that we can devise a set of abstract precepts that will cover all instances (or at least cover them well enough). But why should we think this is the right way to think about ethics?